A sense of proportion – exposing the myths

The endless drip, drip of silly stories about “elf ‘n’ safety”, particularly in the tabloid newspapers, is a problem that just does not seem to go away. Not only does it lend support to the general idea that efforts to prevent accidents have gone too far (when accidents are actually going up in areas like the home) but it gives legitimate safety a bad name.

"elf 'n' safety" banning conkers

Children being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles is just one of the many myths that have been highlighted as an example of health and safety misuse.

Too often the stories, most of which relate to safety rather than health (I wish people would not use these terms together unless they are actually talking about both), are about some quite trivial risk. Many are apocryphal and others turn out on closer investigation to be not quite as reported. Often it turns out that “elf ‘n’ safety” is being used as a convenient excuse to stop something quite innocent happening when other reasons cannot be found.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has continued to call for everyone to adopt a balanced approach to safety.  We stress that safety is not an absolute; it’s all about using good judgement. Our guiding mantra is that “life should be as safe as necessary, not necessarily as safe as possible”.

If a safety requirement looks daft and over-the-top, it probably is. But if there is a risk, even a small one, the basic challenge should be to find a consensus between what would be too much safety at one extreme and at the other what would be too little. Consensus about where these two points lie often enables both those who create such risks and those who are exposed to them to find the middle way.

In our recent submissions to Government reviews of health and safety by Lord Young and latterly by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, we have called on everyone to have the right to challenge safety or health restrictions which they feel are unreasonable. The Government has given the right to citizens to challenge local authorities which restrict public events unnecessarily. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has set up a Regulatory Challenge Panel (RCP) to enable people to take issue with HSE advice which they think is either excessive or inadequate. And more recently the HSE has set up a Myth Busters Challenge Panel(MBCP) to enable organisations or members of the public to seek independent review of safety decisions by non-regulators which they consider are excessive or totally inappropriate. It will be serviced by the HSE and will draw on a pool of experienced professionals. HSE board chair Judith Hackitt will chair the panel and HSE board member Robin Dahlberg will be vice-chair.

Myth Busters Challenge Panel HSE

The HSE's new Myth Busters Challenge Panel has been given the thumbs up from RoSPA. Its aim is to enable organisations or members of the public to seek independent review of safety decisions by non-regulators which they consider are excessive or totally inappropriate.

The new panel has RoSPA’s full support, but it is still “early days”. How often the panel will be called upon to give rulings and on what sorts of issues is not yet clear. It could be argued that it might have been better if this new body had been set up entirely outside the HSE, in order to be seen as completely independent.

In our evidence to Löfstedt, we argued that any safety decision maker, not just the HSE, but any local authority, insurance company, client or even an event organiser, for example, should, where appropriate, have their own such panels or at least be prepared to explain the basis of their decisions if asked to do so.

A recent press release issued by the HSE about the MBCP states: “The panel will look into complaints regarding the advice given by non-regulators such as insurance companies, health and safety consultants and employers and, quickly assess if a sensible and proportionate decision has been made. They want to make it clear that ‘health and safety’ is about managing real risks properly, not being risk averse and stopping people getting on with their lives.”

If it is true that there really is a massive amount of risk averse behaviour out there (although no one has actually tried to measure this) then there is a danger that the panel will be flooded with requests for rulings. To avoid this we have argued that, like the RCP, they should ask complainants to first raise their concerns with the primary decision maker. That way the mere existence of the panel may bring some pressure to bear on hopelessly risk averse people and organisations who insist on precautions being taken to deal with trivial risks.

The difference between the MBCP and the RCP is that the latter will consider complaints about specific advice given by a health and safety regulator such as HSE or a local authority. Complainants are asked to try to challenge that advice locally before approaching the panel, just as they would under existing HSE and local authority complaints procedures. The MBCP on the other hand will be more flexible.

Interestingly, the proforma on the HSE website for making a challenge does indeed ask for complainants to state if they have made contact with the originator of the decision or advice, and what the outcome was. However the cases that are likely to come to this panel will often be where the issue is not as clear cut and where the name of health and safety is being misused. It may, of course, on occasions prove difficult for those doing the background work to track down exactly what has been said and in such cases, the panel will probably just have to pass their opinion on the facts of the case as known to them. They are also likely to consider cases that are received through press stories and correspondence coming into the HSE, but it will be important nevertheless for sufficient investigation to take place to establish the facts about these cases rather than just accepting press reports at face value.

A press release from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announcing the MBCP, listed the HSE’s top 10 silly stories:

  • Children being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles
  • Office workers being banned from putting up Christmas decorations
  • Trapeze artists being ordered to wear hard hats
  • Pin the tail on the donkey games being deemed a health and safety risk
  • Candy floss on a stick being banned in case people trip and impale themselves
  • Hanging baskets being banned in case people bump their heads on them
  • Schoolchildren being ordered to wear clip on ties in case they are choked by traditional neckwear
  • Park benches must be replaced because they are three inches too low
  • Flip flops being banned from the workplace
  • Graduates ordered not to throw their mortar boards in the air.

    The Department for Work and Pensions health and safety myths

    The DWP has listed the HSE's top silly health and safety myths. Graduates being ordered not to throw their mortar boards in the air in order to avoid risk of injury, is among them.

How this list was arrived at would be interesting to know as well as how many of these cases ever had any basis in fact. Perhaps as their first exercise the panel should say which of these stupidities were ever actually imposed, when and by whom and which are, as the title of the new body says, purely urban myths. Many, like the wearing of goggles to play conkers, never actually happened as reported but have taken on a viral life of their own, for example, as a result of being repeated uncritically by the popular press many times over.  

In contrast to ruling on these sorts of totally over-the–top cases, what is likely to be far more challenging for the panel will be addressing allegedly excessive requirements imposed by ‘semi regulators’ (insurers, clients, assurance bodies etc) to deal with small but nevertheless significant risks.

In the occupational safety setting there seem to be many examples of where clients and others demand more than one belt as well as several braces to deal with problems that can be solved by simple measures. Too many, for example, demand endless repetition of the same safety training when there is no obvious need or proven benefit. And then there are firms, for example, that insist on all staff, contractors and visitors holding the handrail at all times when walking up and down stairs at their premises. Holding the handrail is good practice to help prevent falls, but is not always absolutely essential and it is certainly not a statutory requirement, although what bearing not holding the handrail might have in any civil proceedings for damages for an injury sustained on stairs is hard to say. How will the panel judge between what is good practice from a civil litigation standpoint compared with minimum action needed to comply with statute?

Some of these sorts of issues at the margin between regulatory requirements and good (or best) practice may prove quite tricky and the devil is often in the detail. The MBCP might choose to be quite selective in deciding what sorts of things it rules on. It’ll be a case of suck it and see.

More generally though, the new challenge panel needs to be seen as only a small part of a whole series of steps required to create a more risk intelligent society, as advocated strongly in the Löfstedt review.

A sense of proportionality is key, especially when it comes to tackling the problem of excessive risk aversion itself. It may be giving legitimate action on safety and health a bad name, but it is actually quite a small problem compared with the massive amount of work that still needs to be done to tackle major risks that are not properly controlled in many areas.    

In short, a lot more work is still needed to improve understanding of safety and risk, from nursery school to business school.

Watch this space.

Readers’ comments are welcome and should be emailed to me at rbibbings@rospa.com.

Roger Bibbings, RoSPA’s occupational safety adviser.

3 Comments to “A sense of proportion – exposing the myths”

  1. I remember our school told us we couldn’t play Conkers because of Health & Safety! My work say the same thing about wearing flip flops!!

  2. Why oh why is the media so focused on this nonsense and hardly ever talks about the many tragedies and disasters that we ought never to forget and for which many people have paid a price with their lives. These are not always the major disasters such as Seveso but also the silent killers such as asbestos and the tragedy of the number of people who die on construction sites. These are examples of the real reasons why we legislate and have the framework of regulations and enforcement processes that the government seems so intent on reducing.
    One of our major objectives is in allowing businesses and individuals to prosper….we don’t get in the way and hold back business and commerce….we enable it to happen economically, efficiently and effectively.
    It’s about time we fought back against the drivel that is presented by the tabloid media? As Roger says this gives real health and safety a bad name. But we need to take the initiative by talking about our real objectives, values and beliefs and the major contribution that we make to the economy. Unfortunately, politicians seems to have jumped on the band-wagon and it’s a poor state of affairs when the tabloid nonsense is repeated by the prime minister.
    We need to practice what we preach as health and safety professionals and stop being reactive to all of this. We need to take the initiative and show what we do achieve, why we do what we do, how we support businesses and help the bottom line, how we save life and limb and how pragmatic and sensible we are in enabling legal compliance.
    Accepting media reports at face value presents a real likelihood that this panel will just allow the tabloid media to perpetuate the bonkers conkers myths.

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